Aside from trouble and resistance, another word that describes a meaningful aspect of my teaching life and materials is exuberance. A passion for engaging with students. An emphasis on encouraging vigor, as opposed to enforcing rigor. A nearly bubbling over love for putting interesting ideas in conversation with one other. And a teetering on the edge of excessive enthusiasm for experimenting with new methods and assignments. While my exuberance for formal teaching eventually waned (but my exuberance for engaging, thinking, reflecting, wondering, being curious, making trouble is still going strong!), there’s much evidence in my teaching materials to demonstrate its consistent presence in my classes.
A Passionate Participant
In order to embody the feminist pedagogical principle of de-centering myself as the Authority, I worked to participate with my students in confronting, negotiating, and processing new ideas and authors. Two ways in which I participated were by: 1. frequently choosing readings that were new to me and that I had never read before and reading them alongside of my students and 2. actively contributing to our course blog with lots of posts and comments, including ones in which I tested out the assignments that I gave to the students.
In participating with my students by reading texts for the first time, I was able to experience, even if it was to much lesser degree, the excitement, scariness, wonder, and discomfort of new ideas along with them. And, by maintaining an active presence on the blog and by being willing to do at least some of the assignments that I required of my students, I was able to model/perform those experiences for the students. Both of these things helped us (students and teacher) to develop a stronger sense of community, trust, and the belief that “we were all in this together.” And, they often inspired and energized the students.
List! Passionate and Prolific Blog Participation
- Announcements, handouts, revised syllabi (67)
- Reading reflections in which I discussed my own thoughts on the readings and provided models for how to critically engage with the texts (68)
- Introductory thoughts on the topics we would be discussing that week (69)
- Class summaries (70)
- Detailed feedback and advice on writing blog posts (71)
- A welcome to the blog and I why it is important (72)
- A detailed description of the different categories on the blog (73)
- Media examples that were relevant to the class and that could use a queer analysis (74)
Encouraging Vigor, not Enforcing Rigor
Within the classroom, the call for rigor or the claim that one is not rigorous enough often seem to be used to dismiss ideas/theories/intellectual labor that is serious and smart and deep, but that doesn’t fit the standard of what is/who can be rigorous. Rigor, in the form of careful, deliberate, and prolonged thinking, analyzing, and assessing arguments and ideas, is important. But, imposing narrow and inflexible standards of what counts as a meaningful thought or idea, and being overly strict, and often arrogant about it, like a religion professor that I had as an undergraduate who used to shame all of his students with utterances like, “look into the dim caverns of your minds,” often generates more resentment or fear, and sometimes tears, than anything else. A strict and demanding approach can silence creative and compelling ideas or perspectives that don’t fit within the standards. And it can extinguish some students’ enthusiasm and energy for learning.
“vigor in our schools is the evidence of life, while rigor is the sign of an early death.”
As a feminist teacher, I aimed to create vigorous classrooms, filled with life (75). Readings, activities, and discussions designed for engagement as opposed to mastery. And assignments that focused on encouraging vigorous processing much more than rigorous products.
I created assignments that required students to engage with course topics and reading materials on a deeper level that went beyond simply reading an article or book to really trying to understand what the author was claiming and then thinking about how that claim affects how they see, experience, and feel the world. Assignment that required students to respond to specific questions that I posted on on our blog that were designed to get them ruminating on key passages in order to better understand them and their implications (76, 77). Assignments that required students to take key theories or concepts and apply them to their lives: the stores they shopped at (78), the television shows they watched (79), or the news articles they read (80)—or to important issues (81). And assignments that required students to put their understandings and reflections in conversation with other students (82).
Can we imagine an assignment in which teachers ask students to write in ways that trouble familiar stories? Can we imagine an assignment in which the product is less important than the process (Kumashiro, 66)?
I also created assignments that valued the writing, thinking, and engaging process (83) as much as or more than the finished product (84) These types of assignments allowed students to learn from each other, by reading each other’s reflective essays and comments online. It allowed them to hold each other accountable, by requiring that they post their ideas publicly and to discuss and explain them online and in-class (85)(student comment). And it invited them to have more fun as they worked on their formal papers (the final essay), in less formal ways (86).
For the Love of Conversations
In crafting reading lists for a course, I relished putting interesting ideas and authors together for our discussions. I imagined the reading list for the week or for a class session as a conversation between the authors. And my assigning of it, an invitation to students be a part of that conversation.
I love conversations. Deep ones that wander and wonder, where conversation participants, if the conditions are right and they’re willing to open themselves up to new ideas and ways of being, can have a transcendent, and transgressive, experience together.
The conversations I created through my reading lists were messy, with lots of different ideas that didn’t fit into any one disciplinary method. They were also difficult. Chewy. Frequently brain-melting, at least for me. And they rarely involved only one author or one book. I was never interested in presenting material in a straight-forward, “here is what the leading expert says,” kind of way. Instead, I wanted to gather together a wide range of perspectives so that students could determine the answers (or the questions) for themselves. And, I never wanted to have only one thing to discuss. What if we ran out of things to talk about? What would we do for the rest of class?
I’m proud, and still excited by, many of the reading lists that I crafted. But, as I looked back over them for this portfolio project, I was amazed and a bit incredulous by some of what I created. Did I actually expect students to read all the authors and be able to have meaningful, or coherent, conversations about them?
List! Memorable Reading Lists, Some which make me proud, others which make me shake my head in disbelief
- The “putting these two readings together sparked an important conversation that helped me to understand creative (self) expression in new ways” list
- The “what was I thinking assigning all three of these extremely difficult essays for the same class period to undergraduates?” list
- The “Judith Butler describes the importance of communicating in different registers in an interview and aren’t I clever for assigning that interview, along with two other writings by her—a book chapter and an op-ed—that, when read together, illustrate her concept of different registers” list
- The “holy crap these two essays and their authors are so amazing and difficult to understand that I could have created a class just around either of them, yet I thought it would be a good idea to assign them together and only discuss them for one class period” list
- The “let’s critically discuss all our troubled feelings, except the ones that involve how pissed off or overwhelmed you are because I assigned five dense and extremely difficult readings for the week right after Thanksgiving and right before finals” list
- The “yes, twitter has problems and yes, sharing online can be dangerous, but it’s not inherently twitter’s fault, it’s the creepy douchebag trolls who use it irresponsibly” list
- The “this is one reason why I love teaching in a GWSS department: I get to talk about Michel Foucault, Dr. Seuss, and Judith Butler all in the same class session” list
I enthusiastically experimented with new methods and techniques for teaching and learning, especially methods for incorporating blogs and social media into my classes and techniques for cultivating hybrid courses that combined online and offline engagements and encounters. In one class, I made all of the assignments blog assignments (87). In another, I limited most of the assigned readings to blog posts, websites, and online articles (88). In many classes, I experimented with live-tweeting for taking notes (89), documenting the process of encountering and engaging with a new reading (90), and for talking with, and back to, a movie or television show (91). And I researched and then tested out how best to choreograph the flow of the blog by playing around with complicated formulas of staggered due dates, detailed directions, and divided tasks and by constantly tweaking a worksheet for keeping track of assignments to make it as user-friendly as possible (92, 93).
In my classes, I seemed to always push at the limits of what was possible or advisable in the classroom. My enthusiasm for experimenting could cause trouble. Much of the time, this limit-pushing and the trouble that it caused was a welcome change for students and their expectations of how a class could or should function. They enjoyed trying something different and were energized and stimulated by the class (94). Occasionally students embraced this limit-pushing. Their willingness to participate in and contributed to my experiments—to make trouble with me—enabled us to have transformative and transcendent experiences (95). Other times, my limit-pushing was overwhelming or annoying, leading to frustrated students who were tired of doing so much blog work, who didn’t see the point of using the blog and twitter, or who deeply resented making something that they loved a required assignment (96).
Only once was my limit-pushing just too much (97). Too many students. Too many assignments. Too many complicated due dates. Too different from what students were expecting. Too difficult to coordinate with two resisting teaching assistants and a teacher (me) who was not good at managing others. In this class, my experimenting was not read as enthusiastic, but as scattered, disorganized, and evidence that “I was the worst teacher ever!” I disagree with the assessment that I was the worst teacher ever. But that class and the trend it reflected of bigger class sizes and students-as-customers whose (often narrow) expectations of what “their tuition dollars” should pay for, forced me to confront the idea that my exuberant desire to always experiment made me a bad teacher within the neoliberal University.